Manitoba History: Review: Stanislaò Carbone, The Street Were Not Paved with Gold: A Social History of Italians in Winnipeg
by Antonella Fanella
Beginning this century, Italian immigrants sent word back home that the streets of Canada were paved with gold. Many Italians thought Canada was the land of opportunity and dreamed of affluence. Stanislao Carbone’s book frames a different picture: the struggle to survive in a bewildering place that would test their emotional and physical strength. Italians in Canada confronted the usual problems experienced by immigrants elsewhere. The disruption of family ties, employment and financial difficulties as well as prejudice and discrimination from the host society ensured that the transition from the old world to the new was not without conflict and stress. Despite the hardships or perhaps because of them, they persevered.
What enabled the immigrants to successfully adapt to Canadian society was their culture of arrangarsi (“to make do”). Arrangarsi was developed in Italy as a means of dealing with adverse living conditions. Carbone’s central thesis is that arrangarsi played a vital role in the formation of the Winnipeg Italian identity (pp. 10-11, 19).
Carbone’s social historical analysis focuses on “the dialectical relationship between society and individual, crystallized through the forces of social class and gender relationships...” (p. 8). Social class antagonism was an important factor in the Italian emigration yet its significance is often minimized or missed by historians. This is perhaps why the author, who despite efforts to treat both entities as equally important, devotes more time to discussing social class and its impact on the development of culture.
How Carbone’s study is received depends on whether the reader accepts the author’s use and definition of “social history.” Drawing on the works of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, the author defines social history, as a combination of the “history of social movements,” the “study of manners, customs, and cultural values” and is connected to “economic history” (p. 10). Carbone also argues that the definition of social movements should be expanded to reflect “the hegemonic interests of society’s dominant class” and address “the impact of powerful ideologies (social, political and religious) on everyday life” (p. 10).
In his chapter, “Emigration and Italian Society,” Carbone examines the premigratory experience and how it helped to shape the immigrants’ culture in Canada. The majority of Italians who emigrated to Winnipeg were of peasant or working class origin. Most of them came from small towns or tiny villages in Calabria, Sicily and Molise, in the south of Italy, that had been plagued by poverty and other economic difficulties. In the prestige and power structure of southern Italy’s rigidly stratified society, peasants held the lowest status. Attempts at economic and social reform failed partially because class divisions were too deeply rooted and resistant to change. Receiving only a minuscule amount of protection and benefits from the political and social system, they developed a culture based on a concept of self-reliance. This culture was transported with them to Canada and transformed into arrangarsi (pp. 13-19).
Emigration was motivated primarily by the possibility of greater economic prosperity and also served to offset dwindling opportunities at home. Those who chose to emigrate sought to maintain or improve their social status. But if they had hoped to find a utopian society, they were disappointed. The majority of Canadians were of British origin and anglo-conformity was the accepted ideology. As southern European Roman Catholics, Italians were not welcome and were often the target of nativist hostility (pp. 20-29).
Carbone argues that although anti-Italian sentiment was very strong it was overshadowed by “the logic of the capitalist market which dictated that the importation of cheap labour was both necessary and desirable” (p. 32). Italians tended to be concentrated in low paying, low status, dead end jobs, though there were a number who rose to the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie and entrepreneur (pp. 32-39).
Some of the immigrants contributed to the “commerce of migration” by becoming labour agents and recruiting fellow countrymen for “a vociferous capitalist market” (pp. 38-42). Carbone’s study takes a favourable view of labour agents and their activities. Left unmentioned are the unscrupulous labour agents (such as Antonio Cordasco) who were just as efficient in exploiting immigrant labour as some of their predecessors.
The commerce of migration was not restricted to males, Italian immigrant women “played a significant role in the evolution of capitalist social relations” (p. 52). In Italy, female labour made important contributions to their family’s income. This role was continued and expanded in Canada. Like their male counterparts, Italian women were also concentrated in industries which depended on a steady supply of cheap labour. The garment industry in particular benefited from the influx of Italian women in the workplace (pp. 53, 86-88).
In his analysis of gender relationships, Carbone aims to debunk a common myth about Italian women. Although the women were concentrated in low paying, low status occupations and came from a culture that rendered them subordinate to male authority, they were not powerless. “Within the limitations imposed by traditional values and prevailing norms of capitalist political economy, Italian women were able to leave their imprint on the psychological, economic and moral development of the family” (p. 53).
After the family, the most important institution in the lives of Italians was the Roman Catholic Church. Carbone’s analysis of the relationship between Catholicism and Winnipeg’s Italians is based on the works of Max Weber and Erich Fromm. Catholicism is regarded “as a political, economic and cultural ideologywhich is created in history” (p. 54). Although they had often been religiously indifferent or even anti-clerical in Italy, the immigrants became quite attached to the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. This had “less to do with innate predisposition to catholic philosophy, than with the political and cultural influence which catholicism (sic) has exerted on Italian public life” (p. 57). The Roman Catholic Church provided a sense of familiarity in an alien environment which treated Italians and their culture as inferior. It also helped them to preserve their italianita.
Fascism held appeal for the same reasons. Fascist organizations in Canada were largely social clubs whose members admired Mussolini for the glory he was bringing to Italy. Italians, who were apolitical and did not participate in political organizations, were no threat to Canada’s national security. Such rationalizations were lost in the midst of the wartime hysteria and they were of little importance to the King government who in 1940 declared Italians to be enemy aliens, stripped them of their rights and interned them (pp. 70-73). Carbone’s sensitive treatment of this dark period of Canadian history does much to shed light on a subject that even today few know anything about.
From agrarian worker to proletariat to entrepreneur, Winnipeg’s Italians have done very well for themselves. Their successes and achievements are well documented throughout the book. The author concludes however that while they may have accumulated substantial material wealth, “Winnipeg Italians have made no appreciable ingressions (sic) in the citadels of economic and political power, and that their socio-economic mobility has been somewhat confined” (p. 90). Lack of significant advances in social mobility is unfortunately not unique to Winnipeg’s Italian community. While many Italo-Canadians have entered a variety of professions that were once the domain of Anglo-Saxons, they are not adequately represented and have fared less well in comparison to other ethnic groups. Carbone offers no explanation for this state of affairs leaving an entire set of questions which require further study to answer.
Page revised: 10 January 2015Back to top of page